Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
When the 10 o’clock service in the Winter Sanctuary ends, the space will be transformed from a worship space into a space for our social gathering – for conversation and coffee. This is a rather mundane example of space and function being transformed or changed. Less mundane examples might be the faces of a couple in love on their wedding day – faces transformed by love from the stresses of wedding preparations – or the face of a mother seeing her newborn child following the stresses of labor. All of these examples are quite different from the God-centered and glory-filled moments that we’ve heard about in two of our readings this morning. People, as well as spaces, may be transformed, physically, as well as emotionally. Those who witness a transformation may also experience transformation themselves, as did Jesus’ disciples and Aaron and the Israelites, even though their transformation was short-lived. When we think of transformation, we generally think of change, a change in condition, nature or character, sometimes a change so great that it alters the person or place out of recognition entirely. Transformations can be as mundane as changing our worship space, to those that are life changing, or to the ultimate experience of God-with-us in glory that we heard about in our readings from Exodus and from Luke’s gospel. The latter we tend to name as transfigurations. They are invested with a spiritual or elevated character. When might such God-moments occur, in what ways and why? What other helpful tidbits might we glean from these two stories?
Before considering the “whys” and the “wherefores”, let’s step back a little and look at the context of the stories. Before the Exodus story of Moses’ receiving the tablets that was just read, Moses and the Israelites had left Egypt. Moses, being concerned about his authority over and his ability to lead his people, is anxious that God should accompany him on their journey to the promised land – the land flowing with milk and honey – but the people have so angered God that God tells Moses that God will send an angel to show them the way, but will not go himself, “or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people”, God says. Moses intercedes with God on behalf of the Israelites. As a result of Moses’ pleading, God shows God’s grace towards a fallen and recalcitrant people, is forgiving and promises to replace the tablets of the law that had been broken. God shows God’s delight by appearing before Moses on the mountain. Moses is transformed. Aaron and the people were witnesses to Moses’ glory at the foot of the mountain when he came down from his time with God. We’re told that he was with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights. Whether this is accurate or not, it demonstrates to us the need for prayer and time to be alone with God.
The account of Jesus’ transfiguration is recorded in all three synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke – and all are very similar. Jesus, like Moses, we’re told, went up on a mountain to pray. He needed to be quiet, to be closer to and to connect with God. Jesus took with him three of his closest disciples, who became witnesses to the event itself. Just before our gospel account begins, we’re told of Jesus’ recent visit to Caesarea Philippi. Here he shared with Peter, James and John that he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they were expecting – someone who would take over as ruler of their political universe – but that, in fact, the opposite would occur. He was going to be reviled by the authorities, undergo great suffering and be killed. What a shock that would be to his followers. I think Jesus knew that they would need reassurance for the test and trial that would come upon them also. Although Peter had recently declared that Jesus was the Messiah, I suspect that hearing Jesus’ words, he might wonder and question his statement. The journey to Jerusalem that Jesus was preparing to undertake was so momentous that I wonder if he didn’t need confirmation from God that he was doing God’s will. Jesus didn’t go to his friends for affirmation that he was doing the right thing, or ask himself what he wished to do. He went apart from the crowds to pray. There, on the quiet mountain slopes, he received what he and the disciples needed – a double approval of his decision – a visit from Moses, the law-giver and Elijah, the greatest prophet, followed by God’s appearance through the cloud.
Like Jesus, both Moses and Elijah had their most intimate experiences with God on mountains – Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah on Mt. Horeb. We’re told in Luke’s story that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his forthcoming journey and subsequent death, as though they might be corroborating and supporting him to continue with his decision. Then, at the end of the account, a cloud overshadows the group and God’s voice is heard saying “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him”. Peter, James and John receive confirmation of who Jesus is – God’s Son, the Messiah. They, too, are transformed by their experience -though the results took a bit of time and growth on their part.
The transformations of both Jesus and Moses were physical, as well as life-changing. Their experience with God changed their appearance – their faces shone and Jesus’ clothing became dazzling white. Moses’ face shone so brightly that the Israelites couldn’t bear to look at him and his face had to be veiled. Both transformations offered their witnesses an opportunity to experience God’s glory. Could the veil signify a lack of understanding on the part of the Israelites, or were they really so dazzled by the brightness shining from his face?
Have you witnessed seeing God’s presence in someone’s face? Do you want to know more about their experience? Might you also have experienced being transformed like the disciples and the Israelites? God-moments might be in the form of dreams or visions, as well as during times of prayer and meditation. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at sharing these kinds of experiences with others. Do we fear ridicule if we share these moments, fear that we won’t be believed or fear of being thought crazy? Episcopalians, in general, aren’t very good at talking about such things, which is sad because there’s so much to be gained. It brings the listener, as well as the person experiencing transformation, closer to God. But, we’re in good company – we’re told in Luke’s account that Peter, James and John told no-one of their experience at the time!
Some churches provide time during a regular weekly service for parishioners to share experiences of transformation, of God moments. It brings these incidents into the realm of normal conversation and helps people to realize that they are not odd, strange or alone. Even though we may not have this opportunity at Sts. James & Andrew, I would encourage us to share with others we trust our experiences of God-filled moments.
The disciples, we’re told, were fully awake when they saw Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Previously, they had been “weighed down with sleep”. How often do we miss things because our minds are asleep? Are they closed to exploring new ideas? Sometimes, I think we don’t want to face our questions and doubts or acknowledge any disturbing thoughts. Several things can wake us from this sleepiness. Sorrow, love and a sense of need, to name a few, will jolt us out of our lethargy. What caused the disciples to wake I wonder? We can only surmise that it was the bright light of God’s glory. Fortunately, for us, they woke enough to be witnesses to, and eventually tell us about this amazing scene. They were so awed by what they witnessed, that they wanted to hang on to the scene as long as possible. Peter suggests building three shelters on the mountain to keep Moses, Elijah and Jesus there. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, we can’t live our lives on the mountain top. We have to come down to living the rest of our ordinary lives, while, hopefully, retaining the effects of the experience in our minds and hearts.
I’m reminded of an experience I had a number of years ago. I was attending a healing conference and was asked to pray for a fellow Brit. He was someone who had the gift of healing himself and I felt a little intimidated praying for him. I knew he he’d been going through a difficult and unhappy divorce, so I put my insecurities aside and prayed for him. When I finished, his face and eyes were shining and he shared with me that he’d been taken to the top of a mountain in Wales – there’s the mountain motif again - where he used to hike as a teenager. There he’d experienced God’s healing love. For him it was a transformative experience. For me, as a witness, it was a confirmation of my ability to be a conduit for God’s healing. We both had to come down from the mountain top and resume our normal lives, but the powerful memory and its influence have stayed with me and sustained me over the years.
Another example I can think of is that of Charles Colson of Watergate fame. Do you remember him? The seven months he spent in federal prison, became for him, an opportunity to get to know God and a turning point in his life and behavior. He was so transformed by his experience that he changed from being the so-called “hatchet man” and law-breaker in President Nixon’s administration to becoming, on his release, an evangelical Christian minister and the founder of a non-profit prison fellowship ministry. St. Francis of Assisi, who as a young man, led a rather dissolute life, after reportedly hearing the voice of God while he was in prison, went on to found a leper colony, the women’s order of St. Clare, and had a following of Franciscan friars to whom he preached a Christian religion favoring a life of poverty.
Obviously, not all transformations are in the same category as the transfigurations of Moses and Jesus, but vary in intensity and impact. However, they all, whether large or small, bring some change in us and confirmation that God is with us always. Generally, they occur when we’ve been intentional in prayer, when we have a great need, like Jesus and the disciples, need direction and assistance, like Moses, or sometimes when God speaks through us to someone else – and sometimes when we least expect them. May we continue to be blessed by God-filled moments and be willing to share our stories to encourage others. I pray that we may stay awake to God and attentive to God’s presence in our lives. AMEN.
Rev. Ann Wood, Deacon
Proper 24; 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Exodus 33:12-33; Psalm 99; 1Thess.1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22
May the Lord open our ears and our hearts to hear God’s word, as we continue on our themed Journey to Generosity. AMEN.
I’d spent some time looking at the readings for today and wondering what I might focus on for this homily. Nothing was jumping out at me – catching my eye. What did the Lord want me to talk about? Then this week, Dennis O’Rourke’s annual stewardship letter arrived. Aha! I thought – this ties in with Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”. Obviously I’m supposed to talk about stewardship. Groan! Did everyone receive Dennis’ letter, by the way? Hands up if you did NOT – oh, several of you. Sorry, that means I have to continue. If you’d all received it, I could have sat down now! Seriously, though, isn’t it too bad that it’s only at this time of the year, the acknowledged “normal” time for pledge drives – that we hear about stewardship. Stewardship is, I believe, not solely about end-of-the year pledging, but a year-round way of life. It’s about how we use our time, our talents, our energy, and our knowledge, as well as our finances - our treasure. It’s about recognizing that everything comes from God and that we are simply stewards of all that God provides for us. No family or church community can thrive without healthy year-round generous giving of time, talent and treasure, by everyone in the community.
But first, let me take you back to Herod’s Temple, the scene of our gospel reading. Imagine, if you will, a group of serious and devout-looking men, clothed in flowing floor-length robes, and walking in the marketplace. Their robes are a sign of their importance and of their being leisured men of honor. Their dress draws your attention. They’re enjoying being greeted as “Rabbi” by the passers-by; rabbi means “my great one”, or “respected teacher”. Huddling with them is a group of Herodians, a political group supporting the royal family, Rome’s currently designated local rulers. The two groups have their heads together, whispering. I think they’re plotting something. Jesus is here also; he’s come to sit quietly, following his teaching and earlier discussions with the Scribes and Pharisees. He’s watching the people coming and going and he’s quite aware of the group of Herodians and Pharisees and their deceitful planning. Their relationship with Jesus has been going further downhill. They want to arrest him and kill him, but they’re afraid of the crowd with whom he’s so popular. They can’t afford to anger them. So they plot together to ask Jesus a question about taxes – one that they think will trap him whatever his response. If he should respond one way, it will be cause for his arrest and trial for treason. Should he respond the other, he’ll anger the crowd, who resent Rome’s occupation and rule. Either way, they think they’ve got him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask. Jesus’ response “’Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ amazed them”, we’re told “and they left him and went away.”
Taxes – taxes have always been a tricky subject – even in Jesus’ time. Back then, there were 3 regular taxes that the Roman government exacted – the ground, income and poll taxes. It’s this latter tax that’s the subject in our story. It had to be paid by every male between the ages of 14-65 and every female between the ages of 12-65. It amounted to a denarius, or the equivalent of the usual day’s wage. It’s the coin that Jesus asks the questioners to show him. The denarius was stamped with the emperor’s head. Coinage was the sign of kingship. When a king came to the throne, he struck his own coinage. It was held to be the property of the king whose image it bore. To the Jews, however, God was the only king. To pay tax to an earthly king was to admit the validity of his kingship and thereby to insult God. Any tax paid to a foreign king was necessarily wrong.
Then, as now, the Jews and we Christians, have dual citizenship - we’re citizens of the country in which we live here on earth, as well as being citizens of heaven. As citizens of this country, we need to contribute, for example, to public services such as education, the upkeep of infrastructure and to our safety. As citizens of heaven, we have a responsibility to be God’s stewards of this earth and of all that God provides for us, as well as being responsible to our church and to one another. No family or church community can thrive without healthy year-round stewardship and generous giving of our treasure, time and talents. Is there a biblical guideline for the giving of our treasure? - the answer is yes – it’s the tithe.
Mention the word “tithe” and many people cringe. Rather than having a sense of abundance, we can have a fear of scarcity and want to hold on to what we have. As a child, growing up in England during World War II and the years immediately afterwards, a time of ration books and food shortages, it’s been hard for me to throw off that sense of scarcity and to acknowledge the abundance of God’s blessings in my own life. However, when I reflect on these blessings and on God’s promises that have been evident in my life, it’s helped me to get past that sense of scarcity and to give generously to God’s kingdom on earth. God’s promises, mentioned in the Torah, also include the spiritual blessings that come from acknowledging God as being the source of all that’s important in life, as well as financial blessings or financial security.
I’m reminded of a widowed friend of mine – I’ll call her Shirley. For as long as I’ve known her, Shirley has chosen not to pledge to her church in the traditional way. Her income is unpredictable, but she loves Jesus and takes her responsibilities as a Christian seriously. Whenever she receives money, be it income from social security, a gift, or from some other source, she immediately deducts 10% for the church – her tithe. Sometimes it goes into the collection plate. At other times, she saves it up to buy a particular item that she sees the church needs. She willingly gives of her time and talents at church functions or where she sees a need. She gives sacrificially and generously. Some would say she gives recklessly, like the Biblical widow and her mite mentioned in Mark’s gospel, because to most eyes, she really can’t afford to give what she does. That said, Shirley tells me, it gives her great joy to give it to her Lord and to God’s work. Oddly, when she’s needed money to pay her bills or for some other reason, the money has always come from somewhere – ALWAYS. She trusts in our Lord’s promise to take care of her needs. She gives out of her love for God and out of a sense of abundance – generosity being one of the fruits of the Spirit described by Paul.
Jesus knows our hearts, our life experiences and our needs. There are many ways to be a steward. We’ve all been blessed with gifts and talents. God knows why we give; God cares why we give – whether it’s out of our love for God and our gratitude for our blessings and trust in God’s goodness and promise to provide, or whether we give like the scribes and Pharisees for recognition and admiration. The amount we give is not all that matters, but that we DO give does matter, whether it is of our treasure, our time or our talent. It’s very difficult for some of us to take the risks involved with stewardship. It’s difficult to trust when we cannot see the answers. It’s difficult to be kind when people are not. It’s difficult to give when we don’t know how the bills will be paid or how God will lead and bless us.
I’m not advocating here that you now go home, sell your possessions and give the proceeds to the church. “Thank goodness for that!” you might say, and I certainly don’t want to downplay or make light of the effects of being poor. Being poor can take its toll on lives. It takes time to be poor – think about it for a moment. If you don’t have a car, you have to organize your life around the availability of public transportation or of getting rides. If you don’t have a washing machine, you have to spend time taking your laundry to the Laundromat, and so on. Fortunately, rather than giving everything we have to live on, there are other ways of showing our love and commitment to God. We’ve all been blessed with gifts and talents – let’s share them and use them for God’s work. Recently, the parish had a fund-raising gourmet Italian dinner. Each Monday, we serve a hot meal to those in need. There are so many other ways in which the people of this community share their gifts and talents that require time and energy, as well as different organizational and leadership skills. It’s great that they’re being put to good use. May that continue to be so.
At this time of the year, we’re also thinking once more about the leadership of the parish – who’ll feel called to serve on the vestry for instance. Out of your love for Jesus and the love you have for this community, consider whether Jesus might be calling you to step out of your comfort zone, your safety net and give of your time and talents, either to serve on the vestry or to some other parish ministry that attracts you. Don’t wait to be asked. Take the initiative! God loves a cheerful giver!
With our giving, we receive so much more in the way of blessings – a sense of peace, energy and hope, as well as a deeper relationship with God. Somehow God expands our resources, as he does for Shirley, and our trust in God deepens. We have a better understanding of our place in God’s kingdom and of being the care-takers of our earthly home and of all that God provides for us. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples – and I quote: “--- give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” End quote. May that be our experience also. AMEN